Sun, Nov 30, 2003 - Page 22 News List

Reform movements build in American college sports

By ROBERT LIPSYTE  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

This time, the revolution may be telecast on premium cable.

Among the increasingly vocal, yet frustrated and fragmented, reformers of sport, the only point of agreement seems to be that sometime soon, perhaps between the Bowl Championship Series and the Final Four, something will happen to alert America to its runaway athletic culture.

There is no consensus on what form that wake-up call should take. Conservative reformers hope that the National Collegiate Athletic Association will pinch and weed its wild garden of rules and enforce violations more aggressively. Centrists see college presidents reining in their warlord coaches by the purse strings. The more progressive envision mild civil disobedience that will include consciousness-raising teach-ins. Radicals predict college athletes will threaten a sit-down strike moments before the big game unless television producers come up with cash, or at least a benefits package.

"There is not a sports reform movement," said Linda Bensel-Meyers, who became a whistle-blower after the University of Tennessee brushed off her concerns about the education of athletes for years. "But there are reform movements, mostly trying to work through the system in different ways.

"All of them come up against the endemic problem: The values of a commercialized and professionalized playing field, not the values of the university, have become dominant. They become our national values. Might makes right. Scapegoat women. Win at any cost."

Bensel-Meyers, who is now an English professor at the University of Denver, is a prime mover in the Drake Group, a diverse band of academics who believe an engaged faculty can curb what they describe as higher education's sellout to big-time sports entertainment. The Drakes stand out in the vast and varied geography of reform. At the moment, they are the only group promising direct action that might include civil disobedience.

But they are hardly alone. Looming on the right, of course, is the NCAA, which derives its enormous power from the colleges it represents, regulates and cuts deals for. Without the NCAA, its supporters say, college sports would be Afghanistan. Its critics say the NCAA maintains a hypocritical system and that expecting reform from the NCAA is like waiting for the evildoers to voluntarily disarm.

Perhaps the most important centrist group is the Knight Commission, which has just announced its re-formation for a third major study of college sports. Critics may call the Knight Commission toothless, but it has effectively defined the problems most clearly. Other such middle-of-the-road groups include the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University, best known for groundbreaking studies on race and gender, and the Positive Coaching Alliance at Stanford with its guidelines for humane -- yet victorious -- leadership of youth sports.

Rising on the left is a new umbrella organization, the National Institute for Sports Reform, that will try to bring coaches, athletes, academics, parents and community leaders into a clearinghouse for such interrelated issues as early specialization, athletic scholarships, drug use, violence, sports injuries and the crisis in fitness. These issues have traditionally been considered in isolation. The group was recently launched by Bruce Svare, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the State University at Albany. Svare believes that "athletic scholarships are the root of all evil," because their pursuit has poisoned the sports well down to the peewee leagues.

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